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East County Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 6 months ago

To one group of Lakewood Ranch relatives, family always comes first

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At a time when families seem to be moving farther apart, four generations of Braccianos did the opposite. Over Sunday dinner, the tight-knit Michigan clan explained why they flocked to Lakewood Ranch together.
by: Heidi Kurpiela Managing Editor

The Bracciano brood is something of an anomaly in Lakewood Ranch.

Once deeply rooted in Michigan, the family — an extended tribe of chummy siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and babies — is so at home in East Manatee County that it is as if they grew up running barefoot through the Florida scrub.

Except they grew up ice fishing on the Great Lakes.

Before migrating south in dribs and drabs, the Braccianos were the quintessential Lower Peninsula family. They spent their summers relaxing on the banks of Lake Huron and bunking in cottages nestled among the hemlocks and maples surrounding Saginaw Bay. In the fall, they binged on cider and doughnuts procured from farm stands and cider mills in the “thumb area” of their mitten-shaped state. In the winter, they cross-country skied.

They wagered bets at tractor pulls and flocked to the Huron County Fair, where girls competed to be “Bean Queen,” and boys competed to win the demolition derby. They studied at Wayne State, Oakland and Michigan State universities and embarked on ambitious careers in medicine, academia and automobile engineering, to name a few.

Then little by little, they trickled down to Lakewood Ranch — because when one Bracciano goes somewhere, another Bracciano follows.

First to come: David Bracciano, a dermatologist who in the early 2000s saw an opportunity to build his practice on the then-mostly undeveloped Cooper Creek Boulevard. When he and wife Julie moved their three children, Nina, David and Stephen, to sleepy East Manatee County 15 years ago, the family referred to the area with all its open pastures and parks as “sweet home Lakewood Ranch.” Now residents of Esplanade Golf & Country Club, they’re amazed by how much it’s grown since they came.

"My mother and father really stressed the importance of family. We want to maintain that foundation. It grounds the kids.”

— Gloria Bracciano

Second to arrive: David’s sister, Gloria Bracciano, the family’s resident “energizer bunny” who, after serving as provost of Gulliver Schools in Miami, was ready for a change of pace. At first she thought she wanted to move to Naples or Marco Island until she realized her “blood pressure dropped” every time she drove into Lakewood Ranch. In 2014, she and husband Greg Van Natter, a real estate agent, moved into the Lakewood Ranch Country Club. Now agents with Michael Saunders & Co., the couple is at the top of its game.

Third to hit town: Gloria and David’s niece, Katie Bracciano Walters, a teacher at Out-of-Door-Academy who lived in a trailer at Linger Lodge for six months trying to convince her husband, Jason, that HOA communities are OK. A self-described “country boy,” the Florida native always pictured himself raising kids on a couple acres. However, after a brief stay in rural Lakeland, the Summerfield resident says he can’t imagine living anywhere else. According to Katie, “he can mow the lawn in 20 minutes here instead of four hours.”

Last to relocate: Gloria’s daughter, Angelica “Angel” Rossi Sharma, who had no trouble convincing her husband, Haim, a freelance art director and illustrator, that buying a house five minutes from her mother would be great for their baby. Jason even flew out to the couple’s home in Texas to help them move and drove Angel’s car 1,200 miles, so she could fly with her son.

Alfred “Poppy” Bracciano holds Angel and Haim’s son, Niko, shortly after he was born. Alfred died in summer 2019.

Gloria isn’t surprised by this mass migration. Her family was raised to embrace change and make moves. In fact, her parents, Alfred and Olga Bracciano (“Poppy” and “Nene” to the grandkids), were the first to get the ball rolling. Retired educators and bastions of the Detroit-area community where they raised their family, Alfred and Olga retired to Longboat Key in 1985. They remained on the island until the rest of the family started buying homes in Lakewood Ranch, and then they decided to get one blocks from Gloria in the Country Club.

“My mother and father really stressed the importance of family,” Gloria says. “We want to maintain that foundation. It grounds the kids.”

She says they represent a return to the nuclear family.

“The nuclear family used to be extended generations of people raising children together, guiding young adults, nurturing little ones,” Gloria says. “Aunts, uncles and cousins all on the same street supporting one another. The nice thing about Lakewood Ranch is that you can live that way here because the community offers something for every generation.”

If it takes a village, the Braccianos are living proof that you can take the village with you.

The whole Bracciano gang visited Disney World for Christmas 2012, before many of them settled in Lakewood Ranch. Alfred and Olga are front and center.

They do everything together.

They eat together, go to church together, shop together, work out together, fish together and embark on epic Disney trips together, usually in matching T-shirts designed by Haim.

On Sundays, they meet for dinner at Gloria and Greg’s place. At 3,400 square feet, the home was designed specifically for entertaining, with a giant outdoor kitchen that Gloria calls Greg’s “man cave.” They cook whatever they got fresh that week at Detwiler’s Farm Market: salmon, chicken thighs, corn, asparagus, zucchini, etc. Sometimes there are two main courses, depending on who’s in town.

Angelica “Angel” Rossi-Sharma and husband Haim Sharma moved from Texas to Lakewood Ranch, so their son, Niko, could grow up near family.

Jason and Haim are usually the first to arrive for Sunday dinner; they fire up the grill. David brings the appetizers, and Angel is usually the first to do dishes. Meanwhile, Gloria is the one making sure everyone is comfortable, especially “Nene,” who lost her husband last summer after 65 years of marriage. Up until his death, “Poppy” made the same dish for every dinner: his signature salad.

During holidays, there can be as many as 24 people at the table. Gloria’s son, Tony, a cardiac anesthesiologist who graduated from LECOM, hopes to return to The Ranch once his fellowship is over at the Cleveland Clinic. Her brothers Al and Dan also plan to make the move once they retire. Al, a professor at Creighton University, just closed on a house in Lakewood Ranch, and Dan, an executive at Chrysler, has a condo on Longboat Key.

“Everybody thought my uncle David was crazy when he moved to Lakewood Ranch,” Katie says. “They didn’t understand. They thought this was the middle of nowhere. They asked him why he didn’t want to be closer to the water. Well, joke’s on them, I guess. He ended up in the heart of it all.”

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